Do solvent-based paints have a future?

Have you heard the rumour that the government is going to ban paints containing high levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), i.e. solvent-based paints? I have – at least every four or five years over the three-plus decades that I’ve been retailing architectural coatings. I heard it again recently from a paint company rep.

Are we going to follow California, which made the sale of solvent-based paints illegal in the late 1970s? In fact, like an underage paramour, it is illegal to carry a can of the stuff across the state border. Other American states have since followed suit. So will we? Not likely. Or at least, not any time soon.

Market forces have eliminated the urgency factor to ban solvent-based paints because the buying public has embraced low-VOC water-based technology. That, in turn, is driving the manufacturers to produce what the public wants. Couple that with inertia and I expect to see solvent-based polyurethanes, alkyds, nitrocellulose acrylics, epoxies and the other high-VOC coatings being manufactured for some time to come.

In 2008, the volume of water-based retail architectural coatings produced was roughly 12 times that of solvent-based finishes (see the Australian Paint Manufacturers’ Federation website, www.apmf.asn.au). The gap has probably widened since then with the uptake of more advanced acrylic technology for trim work (and, finally, a semi-gloss, water-based ‘enamel’ suitable for exterior applications). This trend away from solvent-based coatings has been a logical consequence of better water-based technologies, and that is good for all of us – retailers, manufacturers and end-users alike. The increased usage of water-based paints means that fire hazards have diminished, occupational health and safety issues have shrunk, there are fewer fumes to inhale when tinting, and hydrocarbons have been slashed. I welcome not having to stock flat enamels and red-lead primer any more.

However, a niche will remain for solvent-based coatings for the foreseeable future, as they can’t be completely replaced by their less toxic water-based counterparts yet. Those water-based enamels are still not quite up to par with traditional enamels on interior trim, although paint manufacturers are working on that. And give me an epoxy for ferrous metal surfaces any time. I still prefer Wattyl 7008 for flooring over any of the more modern coatings, even if a spilled can did strip the asphalt off the top layer of my shop driveway recently.

That spill illustrates a point – that some VOCs are very nasty chemicals. Aromatic hydrocarbons, lacquer thinners, acetone, ketones, mineral turpentine and peroxides? Just look at your dangerous goods’ manifests. Most of them are way up the HazChem list of known dangerous goods, so the less the exposure, the better. Terrorists try to bring down jets with chemical bombs made from products hardware retailers stock! Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to think we can completely remove them from the market yet. The next big wave in paint technology will probably come fairly shortly with nanotechnology – the technology dealing with incredibly small particles. Many paint manufacturers are already working in this area. But, like all new technologies, there will probably be hiccups. Concern has recently arisen over the potential for nano particles to enter the human body where they could remain to wreak havoc. It is also unlikely that governments will do anything radical to restrict the use of the VOCs in paint manufacture soon, as it’s not a political issue. It would also require uniform legislation between the state and federal governments which, from my experience, is a laborious process. You should, however, be aware that the federal government has been quietly studying the chemicals used in paints and is now seeking a consultant to the relevant government committee.

Governments have tended to move slowly where paints are concerned. We all know that lead was removed from domestic broadwall paints in the mid-1960s, but it remained in primers and other coatings for years after that. It took an overturned truck carrying red-lead primer on the Sydney to Newcastle Expressway in the early 1980s – and the subsequent cost incurred after a stretch of the road had to be replaced – before lead in paint was finally a thing of the past. However, it is interesting to note that the inclusion of lead in paints was only banned by the government in 2009. With that track record, as well as an existing need for the product, I fully expect to be still selling solvent-based paints until I retire.